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When This Oil Spills, It's 'A Whole New Monster'

Sometime in the next few months, David Daniel probably will have to stand by and watch as bulldozers knock down his thick forest and dig up the streams he loves.

His East Texas property is one of more than 1,000 in the path of a new pipeline, the southern stretch of what is known as the Keystone XL system.

For years, Daniel has tried to avoid this fate — or at least figure out what risks will come with it. But it has been difficult for him to get straight answers about the tar sands oil the pipeline will carry, and what happens when it spills.

"I want to know exactly what I'm dealing with," he says. "Maybe other folks want to go through life with blinders on, but I want to know how to protect my family, and without knowing everything, you don't really know how."

New pipelines, like the one coming to Daniel's property, are spreading out around the United States as the nation gears up to get much more of its oil from Canada's deposits of tar sands in Alberta.

This is not conventional crude. It is so thick, sticky and full of sand that companies have to shoot steam deep underground to liquefy it or scrape it out of sprawling surface mines. These complex extraction techniques are expensive, and they also produce a lot more greenhouse gases than conventional oil wells. But high oil prices are finally making tar sands oil profitable.

Many people are welcoming the jobs, money and friendly oil that will come with these pipelines. And politicians including President Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney tout the benefits of getting more of our petroleum from such a friendly neighbor.

But pipeline spills are inevitable; hundreds of spills happen each year in the U.S.

And that terrifies some people in these pipelines' paths — Daniel included.

David Daniel stands on his property in Winnsboro, Texas, where the Keystone XL pipeline is slated to be installed. Daniel is opposed to the pipeline, which will carry oil from Canada's tar sands.
/ Katie Hayes Luke for NPR
Katie Hayes Luke for NPR
David Daniel stands on his property in Winnsboro, Texas, where the Keystone XL pipeline is slated to be installed. Daniel is opposed to the pipeline, which will carry oil from Canada's tar sands.

Planning For A Pipeline

Daniel lives about a 2 1/2-hour drive from Dallas in East Texas.

He learned a pipeline was headed his way four years ago, when a neighbor called him at work to alert him that surveyors had been on his land.

He rushed home and hurried down the shady path from his house to where spring-fed streams meander through what looks like a fairy-tale forest. He found surveyors' stakes, with some cryptic writing on them, right in the middle of his 20-acre property.

"I didn't know what 'K-X-L' was; '36-inch,' I understood what that is. That meant pretty big. And 'P-L' had to be pipeline," he recalls. "My heart just sunk that this is the piece of the property that we fell in love with, and this pipeline would tear all this up."

A few months after he saw the stakes, he got a letter from a corporation named TransCanada asking for permission to send out more surveyors.

The letter warned that TransCanada could take him to court if he didn't comply. He called an attorney whose name was on the letter.

"I said, 'I have questions. I don't know anything about this project,' " Daniel remembers.

According to Daniel, the lawyer said, "The only question I have for you is which pile to put you in, the cooperative pile or the f - - - ing uncooperative pile."

The lawyer says that he doesn't remember the conversation, and that he doesn't use such language. But Daniel took notes at the time, and he says the conversation is seared into his memory.

Daniel usually doesn't intimidate easily. He's a carpenter and used to work for circuses, riding motorcycles on the high wires. But he knew he didn't have the money to take on a big corporation.

TransCanada kept threatening Daniel that if he didn't give his permission, they'd get it from the courts through eminent domain, which forces people to give companies rights of way through private property for highways and other uses considered in the best interest of the general public.

What Daniel wants most from TransCanada is answers. He actually drew up a list of 54 questions.

"One of my many questions was: If there's a spill and we have to leave, are you going to take care of us?" Daniel says.

He also wanted to know things like: What kind of damage could a spill cause? And what chemicals would flow in the pipeline?

TransCanada told Daniel in writing that questions about spills were hypothetical because their pipeline would be designed not to spill. But in a document for the State Department, TransCanada predicted two spills every 10 years over the entire length of its Keystone XL pipeline, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Some scientists argue that the company underestimates that risk. Another pipeline it put into service two years ago has had 14 spills in the United States, although most were small, according to TransCanada.

After two years of wrangling, Daniel finally gave in to TransCanada, because he felt he had no other choice. He signed a contract, and in March 2010 accepted $14,000, which was a lot more than the $2,400 TransCanada had first offered him.

But around that same time, something happened that would help get Daniel some answers.

In July 2010, a pipeline carrying tar sands oil burst in Marshall, Mich., inundating 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River with heavy crude.

When Daniel heard these reports, he got scared.

"We didn't have to talk in hypotheticals anymore. We had a real-life example of what we thought could happen here," he recalls.

Daniel went to Michigan in search of answers.

How Clean Is Clean?

In Michigan, a cleanup worker turned whistle-blower named John Bolenbaugh helped answer one of Daniel's questions: If there's a spill, will they clean up all the oil?

Two years after the spill, Bolenbaugh takes an NPR reporter on a kind of treasure hunt for oil, crashing through jumbles of brush and chest-high grasses.

On the bank of the Kalamazoo River, Bolenbaugh sets up a video camera, because he videotapes everything he does. And then he hurls himself into the river.

A couple of minutes later, he walks out of the river, holding up a blue latex glove covered with tarry black stuff.

"It's like molasses but even a little thicker," Bolenbaugh says. "And it smells like asphalt, kind of. When it was fresh, it was a horrible, horrible smell, like they just paved your road, but they paved it on all four sides of your house, and you had to stay there for months. It was that bad."

Bolenbaugh is like a reality TV character. He talks a mile a minute, and he's prone to exaggeration. He sees himself as the Erin Brockovich of this disaster.

Bolenbaugh grew up in Michigan, and after a stint in the Persian Gulf with the Navy, and several years in prison for a sex offense, he started working on pipelines. So when the spill happened, he was called in to help clean it up.

As Bolenbaugh tells it, he and other cleanup workers were told to bury oil, which made him furious. So he started taking photos and videos with his cellphone on the sly.

Bolenbaugh was fired after he went to the Environmental Protection Agency and the media. But he sued the contractor he worked for and got a big settlement. Now he's suing Enbridge, the company that runs the pipeline.

He carries around some of the photos and tons of documents in a huge binder, which was part of the evidence for his lawsuit.

"If you notice in this picture, the oil is still there, but we're raking dirt over the top of it," Bolenbaugh says. "That's what we're ordered to do."

Bolenbaugh credits himself with getting Enbridge to redo cleanups. They dug up a two-mile stretch of creek for a second time, after Bolenbaugh showed reporters that a lot of oil was still under the replanted vegetation.

"I got 'em good. And I'm proud of myself for what I've done," he says.

Enbridge and the EPA dispute Bolenbaugh's interpretation of the role he's played, but they both confirm that it has taken far longer to clean up the oil than expected. Early on, the EPA gave the company a couple of months. Two years and $800 million later, the cleanup is still going on. The cost eclipses every other onshore oil cleanup in U.S. history.

What Is Tar Sands Oil?

Professor Steve Hamilton of Michigan State University has studied the cleanup along the Kalamazoo River.
John W. Poole / NPR
Professor Steve Hamilton of Michigan State University has studied the cleanup along the Kalamazoo River.

A major reason the cleanup costs so much and is taking so long is that lots of the oil sank to the bottom of the Kalamazoo River — but no one realized this at first.

Michigan State University professor Steve Hamilton is paddling down a stretch of the Kalamazoo that had just been opened to the public. For nearly two years, 37 miles of river and two miles of creek were closed because of the contamination from the spill.

In a shallow section, Hamilton sticks his paddle into the river and pokes the bottom.

"You can see just a little bit of sheen being produced here," says Hamilton, an independent science adviser for the cleanup. "It's starting to come up from this as I disturb it."

Hamilton says this tar sands oil sank to the river bottom because it's heavy — heavier than almost anything that's considered oil.

"It's not quite solid, and it's not quite liquid," he says. "You could pick it up and shape it into a ball practically. Tarry is another way to think about it."

Tar sands oil has to be diluted to make it liquid enough to flow through a pipeline. But once it's back out in the environment, the chemicals that liquefied it evaporate. That leaves the heavy stuff behind.

Cleanup crews didn't know what they were dealing with. They expected it to act like oil usually does and float on water. So they focused on vacuuming oil and skimming it from the surface.

But about a month into the cleanup, some fish researchers got a surprise. One of them jumped from a boat into the river. With each step he took, little globs of black oil popped up.

That kicked off a search for sunken oil.

"And everywhere they looked, they found it," Hamilton recalls.

EPA's Midwestern chief Susan Hedman says they had to develop new techniques to remove all of this submerged oil.

"The EPA staff that worked on this, that have responded to oil spills over many, many years, had never encountered a spill of this type of material, in this unprecedented volume, under these kinds of conditions," Hedman says.

Scientists say they're only beginning to study how tar sands behave after a spill, or even whether it might wear out a pipeline.

Will Companies Protect People In Pipelines' Paths?

The most important questions Daniel explored on his scouting trip were about his family's safety.

"If there's a spill and we have to leave, are you going to take care of us?" Daniel says.

On his Michigan trip, he got an earful on that one from Michelle BarlondSmith.

She and her husband lived in a riverfront trailer park, where trees still show oil rings about three feet up their trunks.

BarlondSmith says the sickening fumes from the oil lasted for months.

"Besides the splitting headaches and the dizziness — and we call it the crab walk, which is when you think you're walking straight but you look like a drunk walking down the street — you couldn't eat because you felt like you had two rocks in your stomach just pounding. And when you tried to eat, unpleasant things happened," BarlondSmith says.

Authorities didn't suggest they evacuate until 10 days after the spill; peak levels of toxic chemicals in the air had passed by then. Enbridge did pay for a couple of weeks at hotels for the couple. But after that, they had to go home.

The EPA measured high levels of benzene in the air after the spill. Benzene is a chemical in petroleum, and in high enough doses, it can wreak havoc on the nervous system.

The company did buy about 150 houses along the route of the spill, but not BarlondSmith's mobile home. Her husband says they felt abandoned by the company and the government.

"We were pretty much alone. They did not help us at all," says Michelle's husband, Tracy Smith.

David Daniel says he's haunted by their stories and what he saw in Michigan.

"I learned that this is a whole new monster than what folks in Texas are used to dealing with," Daniel says. "This is not a regular crude oil pipeline. This is something completely different. It's not being treated differently."

The Canadian pipeline company involved in the Michigan spill is not the same company David Daniel is dealing with; he's dealing with TransCanada.

TransCanada's representatives say their company is trying to learn as much as it can from the Kalamazoo spill, but they also stress that their Keystone pipelines should not be compared with the 40-year-old one that busted.

"The new pipelines we want to build are going to be the newest and safest pipelines ever built in the U.S.," says Grady Semmens, a spokesman for TransCanada. "They'll be a lot newer than that line that Enbridge operates. And we're quite confident that any incident even approaching that scale will be very quickly identified and responded to by TransCanada."

TransCanada studied the chance that its new Keystone pipeline system could rupture. It predicted, in a report to the U.S. State Department, that a big spill could come twice every 10 years somewhere along the length of the system, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

Still, Semmens says pipelines are safer than transporting oil on ships, trains or trucks. He also stresses the benefits of getting petroleum from a friendly country like Canada.

"It's oil that's produced here in North America; it supports the millions of jobs in North America in the energy industry; and it can replace a lot of oil that's currently being imported from other countries," he adds.

Texas Landowner Prepares To Fight

Last week, TransCanada began construction on the southern section of the Keystone pipeline. It will go through about 1,000 private properties, including David Daniel's forest in East Texas.

But Daniel recently decided that given all he's learned, he can't let it happen without a fight.

He told TransCanada in a letter that he considers his contract void because of what he calls its lies and bullying. And he warned the pipeline company to stay off his property.

Daniel admits he still expects bulldozers to show up in his forest sometime in the next couple of months.

"For me, as a father, I have a duty and responsibility to protect my family. What I know about this project is they can break laws and put my family at risk. I'm not OK with any of that. If that means I'll have to stand in front of a bulldozer, I'll stand in front of a bulldozer."

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Elizabeth Shogren
Elizabeth Shogren is an NPR News Science Desk correspondent focused on covering environment and energy issues and news.
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